US government shuts down Iran-linked 'fake news' sites
The websites included four heavily trafficked sites that claimed to be independent American news organisations but were actually run by the Iranian Republican Guards Corps (IRGC), the Justice Department said. The IRGC is designated as a terrorist organisation by Washington.
The other 88 sites were designte to target audiences in Western Europe, the Middle East and South East Asia, the Justice Department added.
The sites used domains registered in the US despite their links to the Iranian government, grounds which the Justice Department used to shut down the "fake news" sites. Foreign government-linked entities are required to have licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.
The websites were brought to the attention of the FBI by Google. Additional information was provided by social media giants Facebook and Twitter, said FBI Special Agent in Charge John Bennett.
"We will continue to use all of our tools to stop the Iranian government from misusing US companies and social media to spread propaganda covertly, to attempt to influence the American public secretly, and to sow discord," said Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C Demers.
"Fake news organisations have become a new outlet for disinformation spread by authoritarian countries as they continue to try to undermine our democracy. Today's actions show that we can use a variety of laws to vindicate the value of transparency," Demers added.
The website seizures came at the same time as the Trump administration imposed new crippling sanctions on Iran's banking sector.
The Treasury Department said on Thursday it was designating 18 major Iranian banks, a move that could largely cut off the nation of 80 million people from the world's financial system just as it tries to cope with the Middle East's worst Covid-19 outbreak.
Washington defied concerns from European allies that the sanctions could cause needless suffering and insisted it was making exemptions for humanitarian trade.
Tensions have soared between the US and Iran under President Donald Trump, who pulled out of a landmark nuclear accord negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama and other nations.
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